The Englishman's Boy

336 pages,
ISBN: 0771086938

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From West to West
by Keith Nickson

It's been fourteen years since Guy Vanderhaeghe launched his writing career in a surprising fashion. He submitted an unsolicited manuscript of stories to Macmillan, which got the house a-buzzing. The publicity department was so drunk on discovery that they drenched the dust-jacket with heady claims of brilliance, along with blurbs from six established writers including Alice Munro. Man Descending went on to win the Governor General's Award in 1982 and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in England. Of course it couldn't match the hype, but Man Descending was a strong collection that remains Vanderhaeghe's most visible achievement.
For me, he has always been a writer of grotesque, kitchen-sink tragicomedies about plain prairie folks. Here's the narrator of "The Watcher", a story in Man Descending that is pure Vanderhaeghe:
"I wasn't sure at the age of six what a miscarriage was, but I knew that Ida Thompson had had one and that now her plumbing was buggered."
Vanderhaeghe went on to publish two more collections of stories and two novels, the last being Homesick, in 1989. (His first novel, My Present Age, was nominated for the Booker Prize.) I remember attending a reading in the fall of 1989 he gave while he was touting Homesick. The British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro was also on the bill. At that time, Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day was making big news. Most of the audience had clearly come to revel in Ishiguro's refined, understated style. Vanderhaeghe's prose was more like a fierce prairie hailstorm, hard, stinging, and very funny. A small group of us giggled hysterically. The story he read, which set in late 1950s Saskatchewan, is about Vera, a widowed mother with a twelve-year-old boy, and about their reunion with her father. It is a narrative of gritty comedy. Still, when Homesick received mixed reviews and few readers, it appeared that his profile was shrinking: he seemed to be in danger of becoming a regional writer with only regional appeal.
With The Englishman's Boy, Vanderhaeghe has remade his career with another surprising stunt. The way I see it, he retreated to his writing desk after the Homesick tour and sensed he had exhausted the possibilities of comic realism. One spring night in Saskatoon, he listened again to the crashing of the ice as it broke apart on the South Saskatchewan River. He filled his lungs with bracing prairie air and launched himself hundreds of miles into the endless blue of prairie sky. From up high he saw the Canadian prairie of Saskatchewan blend with the flatlands of Montana and caught a glimpse of California hugging the earth's rim. In brief, our prairie writer raised the periscope from Saskatoon, fitted on the wide-angle and allowed his imagination to soar. He retreated from the prosaic here-and-now and dreamed a tale of Indian hunting in the 1870s, along with a parallel narrative of 1920s Hollywood.
The Englishman's Boy pivots nicely between the end of the Western frontier in the late nineteenth century and the dawn of movie-making. In the 1920s, the frontier was fresh in Hollywood's memory and became a natural subject for legions of cheap silent films. In another departure from earlier work, Vanderhaeghe asks some discomforting intellectual questions. For example: To what degree must great fictional narratives, be they books or movies, sacrifice the facts in order to achieve a grander, more profound truth? Throughout The Englishman's Boy, we are also forced to question the integrity of Hollywood myths about the American and Canadian West.
Primarily, however, The Englishman's Boy is a compelling, intelligent entertainment, comprised of two separate narratives that gradually entwine and resonate in the reader's mind. In fiction number one, Harry Vincent has arrived in Hollywood from Saskatchewan and lucks into a job as a "scenarist" or writer of plot outlines at Best Chance Pictures, with the help of Rachel Gold, a Jewish, vampy screenwriter. Harry is summoned to the palatial house of the studio wonder, Damon Ira Chance, an educated madman who sees movies as the natural dynamic art form of frontier-obsessed America. Chance enlists Harry to find a Western actor and former cowboy, Shorty McAdoo. Beguiled by the power of Griffith's Birth of a Nation, he thinks McAdoo's life story will provide the material for a magisterial, Griffith-like movie of the American West. In this book, Vanderhaeghe's prose is altogether smoother, richer, and more serious than in previous works. The style and subject recall the polished novels of E. L. Doctorow or John Updike, whose last novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, also explored Hollywood history. Vanderhaeghe's evocation of the dark side of 1920 Hollywood appears to be meticulous and loving. When Harry goes looking for McAdoo, we are treated to some fascinating trivia about the making of Westerns:
"A Running W is how horses were thrown in movie action scenes before the SPCA got a stop put to it. A Running W worked like this. A post called a deadman was driven solidly into the ground, out of camera view. Two lines of piano wire were run from the horse's fetlocks up its front legs and back underneath the girth of the saddle; the remaining several hundred feet of piano wire were coiled beside the deadman and the ends of the coils snubbed tight to the post buried in the ground. The stuntman's job was to ride a horse at a hard gallop until it ran out of line and the wire yanked its legs out from under it, crashing them to the ground. The Running W killed a lot of horses, hurt and crippled a lot of men. It was not popular with cowhands."
Chapters about Harry alternate with fiction number two, the actual story of the "Englishman's Boy"-his only name-set in 1870s Montana. There is no explicit connection made between these narratives but the reader can surmise that the Englishman's Boy is Shorty McAdoo, who tells his story to Harry Vincent fifty-odd years later.
The Boy is a young drifter who finds employment with a British gentleman in the American Midwest. When the gentleman dies, the Boy joins up with a vicious, twisted hunter called Hardwick, who is leading a posse in search of horses stolen by Assiniboine Indians. As the cowboys travel across Montana, Vanderhaeghe shows that like everyone else these days, he has been reading the American novelist Cormac McCarthy. The bare plot elements-a young boy/man led through the wilderness by a madman in search of Indian scalps-is right out of McCarthy's much lauded novel Blood Meridien. At times Vanderhaeghe turns on the mythic McCarthy style to great effect, transforming the posse into ancient figures trudging across a prairie that rubs up against the universe:
"Crossing rolling countryside in late afternoon, the line of march scattered and ragged as it crawls up ridges and descends into declivities which cup unpalatable water with a white petticoat hem of alkali deposit peeking from under a dirty skirt of mud. Evans and Hardwick outlined in stark silhouette against a sheet of azure sky cleansed of every stain of cloud; Evans and Hardwick dropping out of sight behind a knoll to rise again in vivid resurrection, tiny black figures against a void, only suddenly to waver, to run and dissolve like characters written in weak, watery ink."
The cowboy tale has many wonderful descriptions of landscape like this one and a fine cowboys-and-Indians shoot-out, based on a real event at Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan. The story of the Boy sags in the middle, however. They ride. They track the stolen horses. They get nervous. They sleep without cook fires. And so on. Vanderhaeghe also slackens the pace further with a couple of character studies of loopy cowboys.
The story of Harry Vincent is handled with impressive skill for the most part. The supporting cast, including Harry's dream woman, Rachel Gold, Shorty McAdoo and his disciple, Wylie, and Harry's nasty boss Fitzsimmons are all convincingly done. Damon Chance, an outsider in Hollywood and a rich man full of intellectual visions, is given to dramatic monologues but carries an aura of cliché about him. A more serious flaw is the scene describing the premiere of Chance's movie about McAdoo. Harry has long since quit the project, after learning how Chance wanted to distort his script. McAdoo, tricked into selling his life story to the movies, confronts Chance after the premiere and Wylie kills him. Vanderhaeghe may have been echoing other Hollywood fictions, especially Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust, but here the story briefly dips into pure Hollywood melodrama. When Harry clutches the bloodied Chance in his arms and receives his final words-"Artists.visionaries.they always find a way to kill us, Harry"-the novel has sounded its only discordant note. In a recent Toronto Star article, Vanderhaeghe revealed that he grew up digesting movies at the Maple Leaf Theatre in Esterhazy, Sask. "My mother really liked movies.. She would take me to anything, whatever it was, talking her way past the age restrictions." A climactic scene like this one shows that even now Vanderhaeghe remains a little nostalgic for Hollywood magic.
Although the two narratives run separately, Vanderhaeghe interweaves them thematically. Both stories build to a bloody shoot-out and each offers a distinct vision of the West. Chance's film celebrates the heroic American individual, the tough male cowboy, conquering the frontier. In a lovely coda, however, Vanderhaeghe gives the last word to the Assiniboine. He describes how a holy man, Strong Bull, talks about how "everything changes" and gives a book of pictures to Fine Man. The book contains the Assiniboine view of their history:
"Fine Man began to carefully turn the pages of the book. Here was a picture of the women dancing, he knew each one by her dress. Here men were skinning buffalo in the snow. Here was a feast in which Left Hand could be seen passing his plate of meat to Broken Horn with a token stick..
"He handed Strong Bull the book.`When I am dead, my wife will put this bundle in your hands because you know its meaning. It will be for you to keep safe for the sake of the grandchildren.' "
The Englishman's Boy is an ambitious and sturdily built piece of entertainment. We await Guy Vanderhaeghe's next big surprise.

Keith Nickson teaches at George Brown College in Toronto.


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